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Exploding sidewalks menace London pedestrians

By Laura Smith-Spark and Erin McLaughlin, CNN
June 19, 2013 -- Updated 1322 GMT (2122 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: At least 5 people have been hurt in London sidewalk explosions since January 2012
  • Health and safety body has ordered a major inspection program to fix the problem
  • "I turned back and saw a big fire gushing up," says a London worker who had a near miss
  • UK Power Networks says there have been "relatively few cases" of such faults

London (CNN) -- There's a new menace lurking in the streets of London -- exploding sidewalks.

It may sound like a joke, but for Indran Sivarajah, who experienced a near miss three years ago, it was no laughing matter.

Sivarajah, who works for a communications firm, was walking along a sidewalk in the trendy Shoreditch neighborhood of east London when he saw a puddle. He stepped into the road to avoid it -- and two seconds later heard a large explosion just behind him.

"I turned back and saw a big fire gushing up," he said. "I could feel the heat from it."

One potential reason is that water or gas entered electricity cable boxes and cabling running under the sidewalks or pavement.

The Health and Safety Executive, a UK public body that oversees safety in the workplace, has ordered UK Power Networks, which runs the power network for London, to carry out a major inspection program in the London area -- and "find long-term solutions" to the problem.

It was when he sat down at his desk, Sivarajah said, that he realized what a close shave he'd had. "If I hadn't been avoiding that puddle, it could've been me in that blast. I count myself very lucky," he said.

At least five people have suffered injuries in sidewalk explosions, according to information compiled by government officials since January 2012.

Three women were injured in a blast in central Edgware Road just over a year ago. One, age 55, had 20% of her body burned and was said to have suffered "life-changing" injuries, London's Evening Standard newspaper reported at the time. The other two also suffered burns.

Another woman suffered whiplash injuries a month later when a cable box blew up in north London.

In November, a cyclist who was knocked off her bike after a cable pit exploded to the west of the city was reportedly taken to a hospital, but no details of her injuries were given.

Asked about instances of exploding sidewalks, UK Power Networks said there had been "relatively few cases" where its equipment has developed a fault.

It has about 100,000 cable boxes and 36,000 kilometers (22,369 miles) of cables under the city's streets.

"We regularly inspect, maintain and reinforce our network to ensure that London maintains its position as the most reliable electricity network in Britain," the company said in a statement.

"Underground equipment can always develop a fault, but most of the time it has no external impact. Some events have involved gas or third party damage and were not necessarily just caused by an electrical fault."

UK Power Networks said it was sending teams out to inspect thousands of cable boxes and pits each year and investing tens of millions of dollars over the next several years to ensure they are safe.

The Health and Safety Executive said it had been informed of about 45 incidents involving boxes or cable pits owned by UK Power Networks since August of last year.

Not all of them caused an explosion, it said.

In some cases, passersby have seen smoke or flames come out of a manhole cover or from link boxes in the sidewalk, according to the government reports.

In other instances, the cover for a cable pit has been blown off, damaging nearby cars or buildings.

UK Power Networks distributes more than a quarter of the United Kingdom's electricity, serving about 8 million customers in London, the southeast and east of England.

It is owned by the Cheung Kong Group, a Hong Kong-based multinational conglomerate. It also operates electricity distribution businesses in Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.

CNN's Alexander Felton contributed to this report.

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